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Dreamliner Woes Expose FAA's Potential Weak Spots

Originally published on Wed January 23, 2013 7:53 pm

One week after Federal Aviation Administration officials grounded Boeing's newest jet, the world's entire 787 Dreamliner fleet remains parked. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Tuesday he couldn't speculate on when a review of the plane would be complete.

Investigators in the U.S. and Japan remain perplexed as to why batteries on two planes suffered serious failures. Now Boeing, its flagship jet and the certification process for the 787 are under intense scrutiny.

Everyone working on the 787 knew that lithium-ion batteries, which pack an enormous amount of power into a small package, require special care. While the batteries have a history of fires, Boeing and government regulators thought they had the battery issues under control.

But earlier this month, a battery on a brand-new Japan Air Lines 787 caught fire. Less than 48 hours later, a battery on an All Nippon Airways 787 overheated and sustained major damage, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing.

An Outsourced Plane

John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, says investigators must look at several things as they try to assess the source of the plane's problems.

First, he says, is determining if there is a design or manufacturing defect in the batteries themselves. In the case of the two problem batteries, it appears they may have come from the same production batch.

Goglia says investigators are looking at other parts of the electrical system as well.

"They're looking at the battery charger, the circuitry and the protections the charging system has, and they're looking at the electronics system in general of the airplane," he says, "because it could be possible that additional current was coming in from another source on the airplane."

Boeing outsourced the design, engineering and production of the Dreamliner to an unprecedented degree — 65 percent of the plane is not made by Boeing. The batteries were made by a Japanese company, as part of the electrical system supplied by a French firm.

"It's always a difficult challenge to ensure that subcontractors are implementing the same high standards for quality assurance and quality control in their individual components," says attorney Kenneth Quinn, former chief counsel for the FAA.

Relying On Manufacturers For Testing

There's another quality issue under new scrutiny: the FAA's certification process itself. While there is no evidence that the recent 787 incidents can be linked to insufficient oversight, the problems have left some asking precisely how the approval process works.

The FAA is responsible for certifying new planes, but the agency is chronically understaffed and, to some extent, lacking expertise in some of the latest technologies. That leaves the agency heavily reliant on manufacturers like Boeing.

"The thing that people don't understand is the FAA does not generate any of the data for any airplane that's certificated," explains John McGraw, a former deputy director of flight standards at the FAA. "It's all generated by the manufacturer."

McGraw, now an aviation consultant, says that certain Boeing employees are allowed to sign off on some performance tests on behalf of the FAA.

While the idea of delegating certain tests to manufacturers has been around for decades, the companies have been given more authority since 2005. But much of that delegated responsibility, McGraw says, is relatively routine work.

"The more cutting-edge, latest technology, systems and items are reserved for the FAA to actually get involved with," he says.

The Dreamliner's battery falls into that category. Overall, the FAA says its technical experts logged some 200,000 hours testing and reviewing the plane's design.

The FAA is now conducting a high-level review of the 787's electrical system — and its own role in certifying the new jet.

Meanwhile, Boeing continues to produce the 787s, but is not delivering any new ones.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's been a week since FAA officials grounded Boeing's newest jet, the 787. Today, the head of the FAA said he couldn't speculate on when a review of the plane would end. Investigators in the U.S. and in Japan remained perplexed as to why batteries on two planes suffered serious failures. As NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, Boeing, the 787 and the certification process used to approve it are all now under intense scrutiny.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Everyone working on the 787 knew that lithium-ion batteries pack an enormous amount of power into the small package and require special care. They have a history of fires. Still, Boeing and government regulators thought they had the 787 batteries under control.

But a little more than two weeks ago, a battery on a brand-new Japan Airlines jet caught fire. And less than 48 hours later, a battery on an All Nippon Airlines 787 overheated and sustained major damage. The pilot on that flight had to make an emergency landing.

JOHN GOGLIA: There's at least three things on the top of the pile of things to look at.

KAUFMAN: The first one, suggests John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board is, was there a design or manufacturing defect in the batteries themselves? It appears the two batteries may have come from the same production batch. Goglia says investigators are looking at other parts of the electrical system too.

GOGLIA: They're looking at the battery charger, the circuitry and the protections the charging system has. And they're looking at the electronics system in general for the airplane because it could be possible that additional current was coming in from another source on the airplane.

KAUFMAN: Boeing outsourced the design, engineering and production of the 787 to an unprecedented degree. Sixty-five percent of the plane is not made by Boeing. The batteries, for example, were made by a Japanese company as part of the electrical system supplied by a French firm. And attorney Kenneth Quinn of the Pillsbury law firm and a former chief counsel of the FAA says...

KENNETH QUINN: It's always a difficult challenge to ensure that subcontractors are implementing the same high standards for quality assurance and quality control in their individual components.

KAUFMAN: There's another quality issue, too, and this one involves the FAA's certification process itself. While there's no evidence that the recent incidents can be linked to insufficient oversight, people are asking just how does the approval process work. The FAA is responsible for certifying new planes, but the agency is chronically understaffed and, to some extent, lacking depth and expertise in some of the latest technologies. John McGraw, the former deputy director of flight standards at the agency explains that the FAA relies heavily on manufacturers such as Boeing.

JOHN MCGRAW: The thing that people don't understand is the FAA does not generate any of the data for any airplane that's certificated. It's all generated by the manufacturer.

KAUFMAN: McGraw, now an aviation consultant, explains that certain Boeing employees are aligned to sign off on some performance tests on behalf of the FAA. The idea of delegation has been around for decades, though beginning in about 2005, manufacturers were given more authority. Still, McGraw says much of what is delegated is relatively routine work.

MCGRAW: The more cutting-edge, latest-technology systems and items are reserved for the FAA to actually get involved with.

KAUFMAN: And the battery was in that category. Overall, the FAA says its technical experts logged about 200,000 hours testing and reviewing the 787's design. The Federal Aviation Administration is now conducting a high-level review of the plane's electrical system and its own role in certifying the new jet. Meanwhile, Boeing is continuing to produce the airplane but is not delivering any new ones. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.